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Tucson ministry a cult, former followers say

Written by Sheree Wilcox

The University of Arizona is investigating a religious group that more than 20 former members and staffers describe as a cult.

Faith Christian Church, which is led by a self-proclaimed former criminal, has operated on the UA campus for 25 years. It is initially welcoming, then slowly imposes control over most facets of members’ lives, an Arizona Daily Star investigation found.

The Star interviewed 21 former employees and church members — most of them UA alumni — and nine of their parents. Their stories include reports of hitting infants with cardboard tubes to encourage submission, financial coercion, alienation from parents, public shaming of members and shunning of those who leave the church or question its leaders. Some say that since leaving, they’ve spent years in therapy for panic attacks, depression, flashbacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Methods the church has used, as described by former members and staffers, meet all five warning signs for “religious practices gone awry” listed on the website of the UA’s University Religious Council.

“The best word I can think of is ‘insidious.’ It starts off subtle,” says ex-member Scott Moore, 32, who graduated from the UA in 2005 with a degree in agriculture.

Moore says his self-esteem hit rock bottom after he joined Faith Christian in 2000 at age 17. Church leaders’ criticism and authoritarianism caused him near-constant anxiety during his five years as a member, he says.

Some ex-members and their parents say the UA should have acted long ago to investigate the church and the campus ministries it lists as affiliates: Wildcats for Christ, Native Nations in Christ and the Providence Club. But the university must abide by an Arizona law requiring all state agencies to “neither inhibit nor promote religion,” saysMelissa Vito, the UA’s senior vice president in charge of student affairs.

The UA wasn’t previously aware of what the Star’s investigation found, Vito says. It doesn’t monitor groups for signs of trouble, but relies on formal complaints related to current students. Former Faith Christian members say the way the church operates makes that difficult because the church often tightens its grip after students graduate.

The UA can restrict the activities of student groups on campus if they’re not following UA’s standard of conduct. All groups, religious or not, are expected to provide “a positive experience for students,” Vito says.

The investigation began a few weeks ago after the mother of a UA junior from Los Angeles contacted university administrators, alarmed by a “radical” shift in her son’s personality and behavior since he joined the church two years ago. Kathy Sullivan’s son told her he intends to abandon his planned career in business to become a campus minister for Faith Christian after graduation, she says. Their relationship has become so strained that she worries about losing him completely.

“They get their members to believe that any questioning, any scrutiny, it’s the devil,” she says. “I want to get my son out of there. I want to do whatever I can to prevent other families from letting their children get in a situation like this.”

Neither the group’s founder and head pastor, Stephen M. Hall, nor Hall’s neighbor and second-in-command, executive pastor Ian A. Laks, responded to repeated requests for comment over the past two weeks.

On Feb. 23, the Star provided Hall, 62, and Laks, 50, with detailed questions about the church’s alleged practices. The 42 questions were emailed to the contact address on the church’s website, as well as hand-delivered on Feb. 24 to the leaders’ west-side homes and mailed that day to the church’s post office box. The Star also left three voicemails at each of the families’ homes and three on the church’s office line. Finally, reporters reached out by telephone, Facebook or LinkedIn to 15 current members of the church staff. None responded.

The church did provide a copy of its 2013 financial statement last week. Churches that are members of the national Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, as is Faith Christian, are required to provide the statement upon request to maintain their membership.

Dan Busby, president of the Virginia-based Evangelical Council, says Faith Christian is a member in good standing and defended many of its practices.

“The questions you have raised, compared to what we know about the church, does not give rise to a sensational story about the church,” he wrote in an email to the Star. “It is so easy for disgruntled folks who used to relate to a particular church to cast aspersions and create negative perceptions about churches that are doing good work.”

VULNERABLE STUDENTS

Faith Christian Church was founded in 1990 from the remains of the now-defunct Tucson chapter of Maranatha Christian Church, state records show. Florida-based Maranatha, which had chapters nationwide in the 1970s and ’80s, folded around 1990 amid allegations that its methods were authoritarian and posed a danger to college students on campuses where Maranatha recruited.

Concerned parents told the Star that Faith Christian aggressively seeks out vulnerable young people and encourages some of them to give up their career paths to serve the church. Leaders also push them to cut ties with their families, parents say.

Faith Christian is open about its goal of converting college-age youth, asserting in a 2012 YouTube video that “19 out of 20 people who become Christians do so before the age of 25.”

Tyler Wachenfeld, the group’s associate pastor, says in the video, “The purpose of Faith Christian Church is to reach college students with the gospel during a very crucial time in their lives and to see them established in a local church, as the Holy Spirit leads.” Wachenfeld, who did not respond to two phone messages seeking comment for this story, is Hall’s son-in-law and one of 10 members of Hall’s family now on staff at the church.

Weekly services — held in the auditorium at Amphitheater High School — are well-attended by an enthusiastic crowd. On a recent Sunday, nearly 400 people — the vast majority of them young adults — swayed together, hands in the air, many singing with their eyes closed as a 10-piece band played onstage.

Faith Christian encourages some members, once they graduate, to become “campus ministers” who then work to bring other UA students into the fold. For example, they’ll stand outside dorms on move-in day and offer help, or they’ll approach students at random to take surveys that offer respondents a chance to win a bicycle or other prize.

Rachel Mullis, 38, who was with the church from 1994 to 2004, recalls being “love-bombed” by ministers on her first day at the UA.

“They shower you with attention and they’re super nice. They became my instant friends,” she says. “If they came right out and told you from the start that it’s a cult, you’d never get involved. They make it seem really amazing at first, then they hook you in little by little.”

To support themselves, former campus ministers say they had to solicit donations from family, friends and strangers and hand over the money to a nonprofit subsidiary of the church. The church then pays them with that money — some told the Star they received as little as $400 a month.

Dan Busby, of the Evangelical Council, says the concept “is often referred to as deputized support — an approach in which an individual staff member is responsible to secure gifts sufficient to cover their staff costs. This is a legitimate approach used by many organizations across the U.S. — for anyone to suggest otherwise suggests they are uninformed.”

Faith Christian’s 2013 financial report shows that its campus ministry took in $880,203 in contributions and paid out $848,435 in salaries and benefits.

Former campus minister Nick Puente, 32, who was raised in the church and left in 2005, says he once lived for a year on less than $10,000, support money he begged from friends, family and, sometimes, strangers. Puente says he survived on a diet of ramen noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese and cheap chicken quarters.

Former member Lawrence Alfred, 38, says Faith Christian took away members’ freedom incrementally, over the course of years. He says he was penalized — in a ritual known as “casting the demons out” — for perceived infractions, such as spending too much time alone.

“You don’t know yourself at the end,” says Alfred, who left in 2009 after nine years. “You don’t know you’re in a cult until you leave. Pretty soon, you’re at the point where you can’t make any decisions.”

Alfred says that, until now, he’s never talked about what he calls his “traumatic” experience with Faith Christian.

“I’m doing this for my kids,” he says of his decision to go public. “If they go off to college, I don’t want them to fall into the same trap.”

JAILHOUSE CONVERSION

Hall arrived in Tucson in the 1980s, ex-members say. Before that, he was living in Florida, and said he converted to Christianity while behind bars on drug charges in that state, they say.

“I had cut a wide swath of destruction across the College of Agriculture at the University of Florida because I used my education to learn to breed and grow marijuana, and was arrested with just truckloads. … Nothing to brag about,” Hall said during his Feb. 22 sermon at Faith Christian, which a Star reporter attended.

“I was really a jerk,” he added.

Former members say Hall tells tales of life as an outlaw, often from the pulpit. He talks about being busted for running a marijuana farm and working as an enforcer for a drug lord, beating up those who couldn’t pay their drug debts, recalls Nina Puente, 59, of Tucson. She says she’s known Hall since his Florida days and initially admired him, but left Faith Christian after 20 years in 2005 with her son, Nick, husband, Henry Puente, 59, and two other children.

“Steve said he was sent to jail for growing what the sheriff’s department called ‘the best pot in the state of Florida,’” Nina Puente says. “He would brag about having looked down the barrel of a gun eight times.”

The Star could not find records of Hall having a drug conviction. Records from Florida’s Miami-Dade County Police Department show he was arrested in 1976 because of an outstanding arrest warrant issued the previous year in Madison, Wisconsin. The warrant was for a charge of extortion. Details of the case are not available: Police agencies and the court clerk in Madison say they either have no record of the original warrant, or their records don’t go back to the 1970s.

About six months out of jail, Hall was hired to lead a tiny Florida congregation affiliated with Maranatha Christian Church, Nina Puente says. He did not attend seminary, but that is not uncommon or troubling, says Dan Busby, of the Evangelical Council.

“The senior pastor has been with the church for 30 years, the executive pastor has been there for 28 years and the associate pastors have all served at the church for more than 16 years each,” Busby wrote. “To take the position that only seminary-trained individuals are qualified to pastor would be tantamount to suggesting that tens of thousands of pastors across the U.S. are unqualified — including my father, who pastored 73 years without even graduating from college.”

Within a year or two, Hall left Florida and joined Marantha’s Tucson branch. Maranatha at one time oversaw dozens of ministries on college campuses before it shut down around 1990, Christianity Today reported.

In Tucson, Maranatha changed its name to Faith Christian Church in 1990, Arizona Corporation Commission records show. Hall has been involved in Faith Christian and its predecessor since 1985.

Claims that Faith Christian is less than a church come as a surprise to a former pastor in Tucson who worked with Hall in a local evangelical group.

In the mid-2000s, Hall was president of the Tucson Association of Evangelicals, which has since disbanded. Dave Drum, who was also active with that group, speaks fondly of Hall’s work to forge partnerships between Tucson’s evangelical churches.

Stories of Hall taking control of members’ lives “strikes me as very out of character,” Drum says. “I’ve heard some of the concerns over the years. There’s different perspectives, but I do not have any major concerns.”

But Drum says he hadn’t heard about allegations that the church promotes corporal punishment for infants or that it tells members they will go to hell or suffer negative consequences if they leave Faith Christian. He would not support those teachings, if true, he says.

“Most evangelical churches would not say that,” he says.

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT

Fourteen former staffers and church members, as well as three of their parents, told the Star that, at Hall’s urging, corporal punishment of children began in the crib.

Some say they ended up leaving the church not long after their kids were born because they wouldn’t use Hall’s discipline methods.

Spankings typically started soon after birth using a cardboard dowel taken from the bottom of a wire coat hanger, they say.

“They train you as a parent that, once the babies are 8 weeks old, you have to lay them facedown. If the baby raises its head, that’s a sign of rebellion, so you smack them on the butt with the cardboard dowel,” says Rachiel Morgan, who earned a UA nursing degree in 1998 and worked for Faith Christian until 2008.

“And you keep doing that over and over until the baby doesn’t put its head up again. And that’s how you train them to go to sleep.”

Once children started standing and walking, the cardboard dowels were replaced by wooden spoons that sometimes left spoon-shaped bruises on toddlers’ buttocks, parents say.

The marks never came to the attention of teachers or day-care providers because church children typically had limited contact with the outside world, former members say. Hall required that members’ children be home-schooled by their mothers, they say.

Morgan, 38, and her ex-husband, Jeremy Morgan, 39, say they left the church when their second child was born. Their firstborn, who was 3 when the spankings stopped, still remembers them now at age 13, they say. Jeremy Morgan, now a nurse in Oklahoma, says it still pains him to recall the boy’s stoic reaction to the last spanking.

“He just stared and let the tears fall, but he showed no sign of pain besides that. And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing?’ I apologize to him every chance I get.”

Jeff Phillips, 42, who graduated from the UA in 1995 with a political science degree, worked as an associate pastor at First Christian and its affiliates for more than a decade. He says he and his wife left in 2007 after church leaders pressured him to spank their second child. The boy turned out to have autism, which made him prone to verbal outbursts.

The church saw the child’s behavior as evidence of willfulness, says Phillips, who attended Phoenix Seminary after leaving Faith Christian and now has a master’s degree in divinity.

Ex-members say kids were spanked for typical childhood behaviors such as fidgeting, not finishing a meal or not falling asleep when put to bed.

“The kids were unnaturally good,” says Jennifer Maynard, 38, who attended Faith Christian from 1997 to 2006. “They were like broken horses with all the spirit gone from them, and it broke my heart … I remember thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m not a parent right now.’”

FINANCES AND CONTROL

Church leaders were deeply involved in members’ personal finances, tracking how much they gave to the church, former followers say. Members were expected to donate at least 10 percent of their income, a biblical practice known as tithing, and the church disciplined those whose giving levels were deemed too low, ex-members say.

Tithing and offerings accounted for $1 million in 2013, half of Faith Christian’s income for the year, its financial report shows.

Connie Cohn, a member from 1982 to 1999, says church leaders criticized her family when their tithing levels dipped after her husband lost his job. When the Cohns said they couldn’t give anymore, elders asked them to leave the church, she says.

In retrospect, she says, that was a blessing. “I thank God every day we got out when we did.”

But for years, she says, she was haunted by warnings from church members, who had told her, “If you leave this church, I fear for you and I fear for your family.”

Cody Ortmann, now 33 and living in San Francisco, says he still is hesitant to give money to a church after enduring Faith Christian’s scrutiny of his budget and insistence on tithing.

“If you didn’t give 10 percent that week, you had to give double the next week,” says Ortmann, who graduated in 2005 with a double major in political science and sociology, and a minor in marine biology.

When he graduated from the UA, Ortmann says church leaders asked him to become a campus minister. When he chose instead to do nonprofit work in Africa, he says church leaders told him he was no longer welcome, and all his former church friends stopped talking to him.

“It’s something I look back on with embarrassment, because I wasn’t really strong enough to stand up for my own self,” he says. “I saw the red flags go off … and I didn’t do anything.”

Requiring that members tithe “is very common in the evangelical church world,” says Dan Busby, of the Evangelical Council for Financial Responsibility.

“The church appropriately teaches the congregation to be generous toward God with their lives and their financial resources,” he wrote to the Star. “The teaching of the church is based on their interpretation of the Bible on these issues — which ECFA respects.”

Faith Christian rents space for Sunday services, currently at Amphi High School at a cost of $990 per week. The church’s assets have swelled from $200,000 in the mid-1990s to more than $5 million today, state and county records show. That includes a ranch as well as two cabins on Mount Lemmon that were rebuilt in 2013 at a cost of $1.38 million, its 2013 financial statement shows.

The Mount Lemmon site served as a getaway for Hall’s family when it wasn’t being used in the church’s efforts to control the behavior of its members, they say. Members with kids were invited to spend a weekend at a cabin with church leaders, who would watch closely to see if families were following Faith Christian teachings and critique perceived shortcomings.

Salaries and wages for administrative and support staff accounted for $370,809 in 2013, the church’s financial report shows. Henry Puente, a member of Faith Christian’s financial board for several years, says when he left in 2005, Hall’s salary was around $150,000 a year and Laks’ about $100,000. The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent workforce statistics in 2013 list the mean average wage for a clergy member in Tucson at $54,040.

Busby, of the Evangelical Council, says Faith Christian bases compensation of top leaders on “a nationally recognized compensation study.”

“This national survey data is far more pertinent for church leaders’ compensation than U.S. Labor data, in my experience,” he wrote. “In fact, working with churches for over 40 years, I have never heard of a church using the U.S. Labor data for comparables.”

“JEZEBEL SPIRIT”

As with children, female church members were expected to be seen but not heard, and weren’t supposed to have careers and kids at the same time, former members say.

Former member Jason Bell, 43, says he was bothered by the church’s treatment of women, who were sometimes accused of having a “Jezebel spirit,” after a murderous female character from the Bible’s Old Testament.

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard that term,” he says. “They were very much like, ‘Women have a certain place in Christianity, and it’s at the side of a man.’ Any woman that was like, uppity, she has this Jezebel spirit that needs to be cast out of her.”

Nick Puente, who was raised in Faith Christian from age 6, agrees that, “The Jezebel spirit was something Steve (Hall) believed was rampant in all women. Women were supposed to keep their mouths shut and do whatever their husbands want and they weren’t allowed to have a life outside the home.”

Single women suffered, too, former members say.

Joan Moore, now 32 and working as a registered nurse, says she was raped as a UA freshman shortly after she joined Faith Christian in 2001. News of the rape had spread through the ranks of church leaders after she told her minister about it, Moore says. She says church elders suggested she was partly to blame for kissing the man in the first place, and, a couple years later, Hall called her a “whore.”

Church leaders discouraged her from seeking outside counseling, saying it was better to seek help from them, she says. But Moore says the church community didn’t provide any meaningful support.

“I was shamed for it,” says Moore, who left the church in 2005. “I wasn’t really allowed to talk about it. It was kind of brushed aside.”

Rachel Mullis, who attended Faith Christian from 1994 to 2004, remembers being mortified when Hall denounced a young woman for “fornication” in front of church members just after a Sunday service. Mullis blamed herself for the public rebuke because she’d confided to a junior pastor that the young woman was sleeping with her boyfriend. The pastor told Hall, who thundered his disapproval.

“It was horrible watching her crumble in front of me as he humiliated her,” Mullis recalls. The woman dashed out and never returned, she says.

ALIENATION FROM FAMILY

After joining the church, UA students often became alienated from their parents, ex-members say.

Lawrence Alfred, who spent nine years at Faith Christian before returning to the Navajo reservation in 2009, says he and his family were close before he joined. Afterward, he says, there was a three-year period where he didn’t even go home for Christmas.

“I wanted to go back home one time, and they rebuked me,” he says. “They used one of the lines in Scripture: Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’”

Ex-member Jeremy Morgan’s parents thought it prudent to outwardly support their son’s immersion in the church, despite their deep misgivings.

“What was alarming to us, among other things, was you couldn’t think outside the box of Faith Christian. The chief minister, Steve Hall, had total control of them,” says Bill Morgan, a retired physician in Phoenix who is now getting a master’s degree in counseling.

But he and his wife, Beverly, worried that their son would cut all ties if they confronted him.

The church forbade members from dating, and the Morgans say they were shocked when, in 2001, Jeremy announced his engagement to Rachiel, whom he barely knew, in a pairing arranged by the church.

Rachiel’s parents — whom the Morgans met the day before the wedding — were bewildered, too, Bill Morgan says.

“We sat down to breakfast, and Jeremy’s (future) father-in-law turned to me and his first sentence is, ‘What the hell do you think is going on with this church?’” he says.

Last year, Southern Baptist pastor Patrick Branch helped a Colorado State University student quit a Faith Christian affiliate, Grace Christian Church, in Fort Collins, Colorado. (The church did not respond to two messages seeking comment.)

It took an intervention — organized by the young woman’s mother, Sandy Wade of Denver — to help Kayanna Wade recognize the group’s complete control over her life, says Branch, who’d been a youth minister to Kayanna when she was an adolescent.

He says Faith Christian’s teachings are dangerously out of line with scripture.

“A portion of their ministry was well-meaning. They wanted to lead people to Christ. But when it came to how they did it, it was completely wrong,” says Branch, now a pastor in Alabama.

Among his biggest concerns: Kayanna had dropped all of her childhood friends who weren’t church members and was spending her summer raising money for the church, cold-calling hundreds of random people in the phone book — all day, every day. She would give the money to the church, which would dole out allotments for her to live on, he says.

“There’s no scriptural precedent for that anywhere in the Bible,” he says. “If they want to go out and get a burger, they have to ask the pastor for money. It is completely about control. It just really gives Christianity a black eye.”

HEALING THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media has brought together former members for a new kind of fellowship.

A few years ago, ex-staffer Jeff Phillips and others launched the Facebook page “Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and its OffShoots.” The site, which has about 230 likes, contains dozens of personal accounts. The Star found most of the former church members interviewed for this investigation via the Facebook site.

Nearly two decades have passed since Bell was a member of Faith Christian in his early 20s. But his reaction was powerful when he found the page and began reading narratives of his old church friends. He says he was overwhelmed with relief that he wasn’t alone.

“I just started crying,” Bell says. “I realized that it wasn’t just me not being a strong enough Christian. That’s how I felt when I left, that I couldn’t handle it. I realized that was not true. I had done my best. I had given everything I had, and it was not really my fault.”

Faith Christian leader Stephen Hall responded to the negative Facebook postings during a 2013 sermon in which he told followers they shouldn’t make or read negative comments about a church or a Christian on social media. A former member provided the Star with a recording of the talk.

“That is one of the most grievous sins. Reading about people’s complaints about other Christians, it’s just like you did that yourself. A grievous, bitter, nasty, nasty thing,” Hall preached. “If any of you read negative things about any Christian on the Internet, you’re participating in wickedness and deeds of darkness, and it’ll come and get you.”

To Doug Pacheco, a former member of Faith Christian’s predecessor church, what’s most grievous is the negative control the church exerts over its followers.

When Pacheco uprooted his family and left the church in 1990, he says they lost all of their church friends. Even 10 years later, when they visited Tucson, those friends “would have nothing to do with me,” he says.

That exemplifies the church’s failings — and its dangers, says Pacheco, who now lives in Indiana.

“Anywhere someone does not have the freedom to go make a decision on their own, without feeling shunned, without being shamed, it is not a biblical church,” he says. “Churches don’t shun you. Churches don’t shame you. Churches don’t put you in a place where you no longer have any friends.”

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About the author

Sheree Wilcox

Sheree Wilcox is distinguished as the youngest winner of the prestigious Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism. Miss Wilcox received her Masters Degree in Journalism from DeVry University, and her B.S. from Google University. In her senior year of high school, at the age of 17 school administrators discovered that Sheree had a perfect IQ of 100. She rose to journalism notoriety when she broke an important story about wage disparity between the Aryan cafeteria workers and the Chicano librarians in Monmouth women's penitentiary where she was serving out her sentence for tax evasion. She spends most of her free time at her ranch in Colorado where she enjoys prepping for a variety of doomsday scenarios.


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